La Serre, for many years the San Fernando Valley's most prestigious restaurant, has closed, an owner said Tuesday, citing competition and the reluctance of even big spenders to patronize expensive restaurants in a recession.
Would-be patrons telephoning the restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City hear a recorded message informing them that it closed Monday and will reopen later with a new, "reasonably priced menu"--downscaling the stylish, haute cuisine French eatery into a different place altogether.
"The recession caused some of our attitude toward closing," said Jerry Bakalyan, one of the restaurant's three owners.
He said business was down about 50% from two years ago.
But the recession was only part of La Serre's problem, those who ran and worked at La Serre said.
In 1988, one of the other owners of La Serre opened a competing restaurant, Mistral, nearby and that drew off a portion of the business, Bakalyan said.
Finally, the departure of several key employees also had an effect.
Jean-Pierre Peiny, La Serre's chef for 13 years until he quit earlier this year, said he left because of dissension among the owners.
"It hurt me when I heard" about the closing, Peiny said, but "I did not want to be in the middle."
Peiny is opening his own restaurant next week in Santa Monica.
La Serre is the latest in a string of expensive Los Angeles-area restaurants to fail. L'Ermitage closed in July after 16 years.
Alberta Hultman of the California Restaurant Assn. said people are eating out less and looking for bargains when they do.
This hits upscale restaurants hard because "they can't cut back on labor and serve a less select cut of meat," she said.
La Serre opened in 1974 and quickly developed a reputation for serving traditional French cooking in high style at a high price.
Each of its several tiny dining rooms was filled with plants. Patrons sat in comfortable French provincial chairs on a rustic brick floor.
As its reputation grew, La Serre attracted upscale businessmen and Hollywood performers and deal-makers, some of whom had nameplates on their favorite tables to reserve them.
Bakalyan said the restaurant became a favorite for power-lunchers because rooms were so private that "you could have Warner Bros. in one room and Universal in the other and neither would know the other was there."
Reviewers often focused on the manners of the waiters as well as the quality of the food.
One newspaper referred to La Serre as "that somewhat uppity French restaurant," while The Times called it a "comforting, albeit high-ticket, French dining experience" served "in that infuriatingly punk French manner."
The closure of the restaurant hit some people hard.
Sondra Frohlich, executive director of the Studio City Chamber of Commerce, said it will be missed. "La Serre was a very, very fine restaurant," she said, and its "interior decor created intimate areas" for the rich and famous.
Bonny Matheson, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., had a different view. She said she found the food good but the atmosphere confining to the point of claustrophobia. She won't miss it, she said, "but then I'm not a chi-chi restaurant-goer."
While the recession drew off about 25% of the business, Bakalyan said, increased competition was another blow, particularly from a French bistro five blocks west on Ventura Boulevard called Mistral.
One of the founders of Mistral was Roger Sembiazza, who still owns a share in La Serre.
"Roger really shot himself in the foot" by helping create La Serre's competition, Bakalyan said.
Sembiazza, who lives in Cannes, France, could not be reached for comment.
Compounding the problem caused by Peiny's departure, the chef hired to replace him, Jean-Pierre Bosc, left in July after only a few months on the job.
Bakalyan said he hasn't decided on the type of cuisine the new restaurant will feature, although he said he is leaning toward California cooking featuring grilled steaks, chops and fish.
He said the new restaurant may be named La Serre Grill or perhaps the Greenhouse Grill. La Serre means the greenhouse.
The price of the entrees, he said, will be "dictated by the times."
Asked if that means a cheaper menu, he demurred. "Cheap is a funny word. La Serre will never be cheap. It will be priced for people who support La Serre."
He also said the ownership could change, but gave no specifics.
La Serre's Mixed Reviews
In its long reign at the top of the San Fernando Valley restaurant mountain, La Serre drew many bouquets from critics and a few arrows, sometimes for not keeping up with the times. A sample:
* High-ticket lunch: "La Serre, that first-rate, expensive, somewhat uppity French restaurant in Studio City, gets a lot of the high-ticket lunch business from the Valley movie studio and television biz crowd."
--L.A. Daily News, Oct. 17, 1987
* Resisting modernization: "For years this restaurant has resisted efforts to modernize, basing itself on a staid, south-of-the-Boulevard clientele that has never been quite at home with the more radical trends in French cooking. . . . One would have to look hard to find a glint of the cutting edge in what they are presently cooking. Perhaps time has passed this venerable establishment by."
--Max Jacobson, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 1, 1991